Nov 13

On Safety Pins and Slactivism (and Facebook Birthdays)

closed safety pin casting shadow against a wooden surfaceI posted a link to a think piece on Facebook last night. I’ve been posting lots of links to think pieces on Facebook in the last week or so. This one seems to have struck a nerve, both on my wall and on many others. It’s titled “Your Safety Pins Are Not Enough” and was written by a woman named Lara Witt. I don’t know Lara Witt, but I think that she makes an important point. Namely, that the sudden appearance of safety pins as a sign of allyship and solidarity in the face of Trump’s election isn’t enough.

In the last several days, a lot of Americans have been afraid, uncertain, anxious, fearful, frustrated, outraged, sorrowful . . . I myself have felt all of these things and more. I have felt guilt. I have felt failure. I have wondered about many things. What if I had made phone calls? What if I had donated a little more to campaigns? What if I had spoken out more and/or more often? What if. . .

I know that there are hundreds and thousands of others feeling these things too. I see it all over my Twitter feed. It has taken over my Facebook timeline. Membership in groups like Pantsuit Nation, nation, regional, local has swelled and choked platforms with strangleholds because moderators couldn’t process requests, both to join and to post, fast enough to keep up with the demand.

In what are to many dark days, outpourings of solidarity and support are beacons of hope, clichéd though it might sound. The safety-pin is one such beacon. Or at least it has the potential to be such a beacon. But it also has the potential to be something else. It has the potential to be an empty symbol, but it also has the potential to be harmful.

How can something so benign do harm?

Here’s an analogy, and it’s going to seem a little out there at first, but bear with me. The analogy is this: the Facebook Birthday announcement.

On its face, the Facebook Birthday notifier (FBBN) feature seems great. It reminds of our friends birthdays, and it tells of about birthdays that we might not even have known. It makes it easy to spread a little bit of happiness to a lot of people in less than a minute. It leads to the well-wishing from hundreds of one’s closest friends. Who doesn’t love happy messages from hundreds of their closest friends, especially on their birthday?

I’ll tell you who: me.

Right about now, if you know me, you are thinking that this proclamation confirms my reign as the Queen of the World of Hypocrisy. And you’re not entirely wrong. I’ve had an unwritten rant about the FBBN for years now, and I had even taken my birthday off of the FB radar this year. And then I caved. I broke up with my boyfriend two days before my birthday, and in the aftermath, I felt anxious and isolated. I let myself be talked into turning the FBBN on at the eleventh hour, literally sometime after 11:00PM on the eve of the birthday. And not even twenty-four hours later, I got my hundreds of well-wishes. And they really did make me feel better in ways that I couldn’t begin to articulate.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is this. Setting aside my own emotional tailspin of a train wreck this year, the FBBN has led to decimation of friendship. That’s a provocative claim, intentionally so. But there’s truth to it. It’s not just about the birthday notifier; Facebook itself is implicated as well, but the birthday notifier is the epitome of this problem. In short, the FBBN has reduced us and our friendships to the lowest common denominator. We used to talk on the telephone and write emails that were substantive instead of perfunctory. We used to drop by to see one another if too much time had passed. We used to send greeting cards if not flowers or packages. Nowadays, we type “Happy Birthday!” onto a FB page and don’t give it another thought. Or if we want to make an effort, we might find an image online to paste on to the wall. Or if we want to make an effort, maybe we send an Amazon gift card if the person is really important. We generally do not call or even text (special shout out to the handful of people who I am not related to who texted or called me on my birthday this year–you are all rock stars in my world, and I’m not kidding even a little). In short, we have become lazy friends.

Let me clarify that not all friendships are equal. It would be weird for many of my FB friends to call or text me on my birthday. And it would be weird for me to cal or text many, maybe even most of them on theirs. Many of my FB friends don’t have the number to call (or text) even if they felt so moved. But plenty do and choose not to. And that’s a choice, a valid one. I’m not complaining about the choice. I’m pointing out the effect of the choice, which is a leveling one. More specifically, FB levels us all down to the lowest common denominator when it comes to friendship. The lowest common denominator isn’t even a bad thing in and of itself. The reason I haven’t jumped ship from FB despite several points of consideration over the last decade is because these relationships do matter. In fact, they matter a lot. They have value to me. But I also recognize that the quality of some of my friendships has suffered, and it’s not FB’s fault. It’s our fault. We let “likes,” and more recently, “loves,” “wows,” angry faces, tear-strewn faces, and laughing faces stand in for genuine interactions. We do this a lot. And setting aside the algorithmic implications of these clicks for their effects on our timelines, the response click, be it like or something else, serves as the friendship equivalent to saccharine or aspartame (or insert the artificial sweetener of your choice here). It gives us the flavor without the calories. If gives us the result without the effort. We feel connected, and we are to an extent, but the connections are all often leveled down. There is often a hollowness at the core. Not in every click on every page, but it happens. We don’t even have to read the status update or the linked articles to respond to them. We can validate or be validated with the click of button. No further engagement is required. This is often a version of slactivism. It’s often a token gesture that doesn’t lead to further engagement or meaningful interaction.

I worry that the safety-pin will be a similar gesture. The intentions are good just as the intentions of the FB birthday wish are good. I believe both of these things. But I worry that the gesture will become hollow. I worry that it will serve as a panacea. I worry that it will function to bring us all again to the lowest common denominator without us even realizing that we’re on the escalator down.

I’m not saying that we should abandon the safety-pin. I recognize the utility of the symbol for those who feel vulnerable or at risk as well as for those who want to make visible their solidarity. These are good things. But alone they are insufficient. A symbol only means something if there is something behind it. And many marginalized people have expressed skepticism over the safety-pin. See, for example, the Twitter feeds of @absurdistwordsVann Newark III, Alex Blank Millard, and @KristineWyllys.

Right now, many of us are grasping at anything that we can do to provide support and show that we do not approve of the election results, the hate crimes, the harassment . . . In short, many of us feel an acute sense of discomfort. This is a good thing. This is a hard thing. This is a necessary thing. Discomfort is a necessary precursor to change of any kind. I worry that many will use the safety-pin as a way to feel less discomfort without doing the work that substantive change requires. We cannot let ourselves off the hook so easily. We need to feel uncomfortable right now. We need to sit with these fears and this uncertainty and the discomfort of everything that has happened in the United States, not just since November 9, 2016, but also in the days and weeks and months that led up to it. We have an opportunity here; in fact, we have several opportunities. We see demonstrations of racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia . . . we see swastikas and Confederate flags and celebrations of sexual assault. Our resistance to such hate can start with a safety-pin. It can start with offering allyship and consolation and sympathy. But it must not end there. We cannot allow it to stand in for other more meaningful actions whether those actions involve public protests or demonstrations, donations to various organizations, or smaller gestures of solidarity as simple as a conversation or even a hello.

I also worry that the safety-pin might serve to foreclose potential opportunities for connection. Here, I’m thinking specifically of conversations with people who might be less aware of certain kinds of oppression or less sensitive to them. Put another way, while the safety-pin might well serve as a welcome sign for certain forms of interaction, it might serve as a warning against others, driving oppression once again underground, rendering it invisible, but not actually solving the problem. We need to actually solve the problems. Or at the very least, we need to actually try. It’s not enough to click a response on social media and go back to our regular lives. Many, many Americans do not have that luxury.

Wear the pin, or don’t wear the pin. But if you choose to wear it, be ready to put your time, your energy, your money behind it. As Alex Millard has tweeted, “Now is not the time for quiet gestures of allyship. . . Safety pins are like “liking” a tweet. It’s not about bad intentions, it’s just the very least you could do.” The house is on fire. In fact, the entire neighborhood is on fire. For many Americans, it will keep burning for at least 4 years.


[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Linus Bohman]

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